Gladys Berejiklian ... opened up the contracts of suburban bus operators to competitive tendering.

Gladys Berejiklian ... opened up the contracts of suburban bus operators to competitive tendering. Photo: Dean Sewell

IF YOU believe every press release you read, the private sector is riding to the rescue of Sydney's derided public transport system.

The Transport Minister, Gladys Berejiklian, excitedly handed the keys to Sydney Ferries last week to a consortium made up of French companies, Veolia and Transdev, and local services giant Transfield - as predicted by this column in January.

In a separate decision, Berejiklian also threw open the door for big business to enter Sydney's $1-billion private bus industry by opening up the contracts of suburban operators to competitive tendering for the first time.

In both cases, the minister claimed the financial burden on government in providing transport would lessen while services for commuters would improve.

Details of how this double upside will be achieved remain scarce, so let's consider the last Coalition-led transport privatisation. Back in 1994, the then Liberal transport minister Bruce Baird signed off on the $900-million Airport Rail Link public-private partnership. During the election campaign a year later, Baird famously boasted the rail line would not cost taxpayers ''one cent''. Within six months of opening, AirportLink was in receivership. It has cost taxpayers $800 million.

In what should have been a warning for the Cross City and Lane Cove Tunnel implosions that followed, patronage forecasts had been wildly overstated and the financial model of the rail link company crumbled.

But Baird - the father of NSW treasurer Mike Baird - remains convinced the private sector is the answer. He now chairs the Tourism and Transport Forum whose members, along with companies such as Qantas, include the aforementioned Veolia, Transdev and Transfield.

TTF was rapturous in its praise of Berejiklian over the ferries announcement and noticeably quick out of the blocks to welcome her decision on bus tenders. The minister returned the favour by reading from the press release of TTF chief executive, John Lee, during Thursday's question time.

Lee's statement said competitive bus tendering ''already works well in Adelaide and Perth''. He should know. He headed up Transfield's tender bid in Adelaide, which saw it scoop a $567-million contract last year to run 40 per cent of that city's bus routes.

But is it really working that well?

Last week Transfield was fined $121,000 by South Australia's Transport Services Minister Chloe Fox amid mass public outrage over late and non-existent bus services run by Transfield. There are even calls for drivers to issue ''late slips'' to workers after complaints by bosses over widespread lateness.

After decades in which Labor proved that a state-owned transport system dominated by a unionised workforce is not the answer, the private sector must be part of the long overdue transport fix in Sydney.

But the minister must be alert to the bold boasts of multinationals who have promised a lot and cost taxpayers even more in the past.